Saturday, December 21, 2013

Rockwell Biography Criticized by Family

Thomas Rockwell, Norman's son, blasts the inaccuracies, falsehoods, and innuendos in Deborah Solomon's recent biography "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" in a 45 minute long interview on WAMC public radio.

Solomon's biography suggests that Rockwell's art was driven by feelings of pedophilia and homosexuality, and that his self-absorption led to the deaths of family members.

Thomas said that the biographer spent only two or three hours interviewing him in a diner and gave him no opportunity to respond about inaccuracies in the manuscript. This is unfortunate, as Thomas is the person who worked most closely with Rockwell on his famous autobiography. "This is a huge literary snow job," he says.

N.R.'s granddaughter Abigail characterizes the book as "salacious lies in the guise of a well-researched book."  

Wake Forest University professor Patrick Toner also dissects the book's portrayal of Rockwell and challenges Solomon's scholarship in his detailed online article "False Portrait." Toner says that Solomon's arguments "are deeply flawed, and she has a pronounced tendency to either distort or ignore evidence to the contrary of her claims."

I haven't read the book, but I read the biographical article that Ms. Solomon wrote in Smithsonian. Rather than being a humanizing portrait of Rockwell, I found it to be full of inaccuracies and innuendos, and I was surprised it got by Smithsonian magazine's fact-checkers.

I believe the Norman Rockwell Museum made a mistake in endorsing the book and hosting its launch. While it is laudable for the museum to provide a forum for a variety of views on Rockwell, it's also essential for them, as the nexus of Rockwell scholarship, to set the record straight when false or misleading claims are made about the man, especially when those claims have been uncritically accepted by the mainstream press. I hope the museum will make a statement clarifying its position and correcting the record.

No one wants a sanitized image of Rockwell, but we do want a truthful one.
Further reading
• In Huffington Post, Sherman Yellen, who knew Rockwell, describes Solomon's portrait as a "distorting carnival glass view of Norman Rockwell"
• Patrick Toner's online rebuttal article "False Portrait.
• In a New York Times review of the book, Garrison Keillor characterizes Rockwell more sympathetically and questions Solomon's sexualized portrait.


Tom Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hart said...

Thanks for adding your voice to the criticism of this biography, James. Your own scholarship on Rockwell is considerable, and it's very telling that you found inaccuracies even in Solomon's article.

Rockwell has been too readily and unfairly targeted in the "is illustration art?" debate. Adding character assassination to that is especially sad.

Bill Marshall said...

Unfortunately this type of content, and subsequent publicity is what sells books, and I don't doubt that Solomon is well aware of that fact.

Lester Yocum said...

"No one wants a sanitized image of Rockwell, but we do want a truthful one." Agreed. Your Facebook page has several thoughtful responses to this. I read the same Smithsonian article and am astounded at how sensationalist and agenda-driven her work seems. She's making money off the headlines from the controversy she's generated. I hope she's okay with consequences. I'm glad you, with your professional experience, disagree with her.

Kevin Mizner said...

Thank you Mr. Gurney for adding to the criticism of that book. Frankly, I was shocked at seeing it so prominently displayed at the Rockwell Museum when I was there a few weeks ago. I guess writing a book about a guy (admittedly a workaholic) that went to work every day to paint pictures to support his family wouldn't be sensationalist enough.

As a life-long fan of his, I am pleased to see Rockwell gaining more respect in the art world (46 million bucks worth of respect!) But I also feel that to dissect his paintings with the same critical eye as one would a Fine Art painting is a mistake. Rockwell painted for his clients. Every piece we know him for was done under contract. "Rockwell's America" is, to me, more Coca Cola's America, or Brown and Bigelow, The Boy Scouts or The Saturday Evening Posts "America".

I stand in awe of Rockwell's ability as a realist painter-- he was a genius. In my almost forty years of studying him, I also think he was just a fairly normal guy who was a master painter.

Keith Parker said...

I never had the honor of meeting Rockwell, but I spoke older artists that said he was a very humble, and friendly man (not unlike many of the most successful illustrators working today, whom I have met). This is a shame to mar the reputation and character of this hero of American art, and culture. His art was, in my mind, Americans honest, yet at their best. I just hope people don't buy into this idea of Rockwell that the book is presenting. I think its horrible for people to promote this sort of nonsense just to push an agenda or get attention.

अर्जुन said...

…modern scholarship… :-l

Cody Robles said...

Shocked people could buy into this portrayal of one of Americas great artists. To me his work has spoken goodness.

Rich said...

"Wer bin ich, und wenn ja, wie viele?"
That has recently been the title of a bestseller by some kind of German philosopher.
The title would translate into something like:

"Who am I; and if so, how many?"

Everyone, any artist included, consists of multiple personalities.

Everyone is an artist. In a latent way! Everyone dreams in sleep during nighttime. Those dreams rendered in painted pictures and illustrations, wow! Each and every one would be considered a unique work of light and shade. Everyone at night, within the sequences of his dreams, is a genius!

But very few are those able to REALISE their dreams into drawn out painting and print. Very few would hava the talent and the required Stamina to Illustrate!

Rockwell was amongst them, IMO.

That was his chief personality. To look at him otherwise, delving into his other personalities, more or less mediocre, is as mediocre as this so called "Rockwell Biography".

Won't buy it.

Steve said...

In the radio interview, Thomas Rockwell and his daughter Abigail mention an essay by Patrick Toner as being a measured rebuttal to Solomon's book. Here's a link to that:

Anonymous said...

A shame, I was looking forward to reading this, hoping for a fair and complete look at Rockwell's life.

As an alternative, I highly recommend reading Brian Jay Jone's new biography of Jim Henson. It's excellent, well-written, and inspiring.

Oscar Baechler said...

This sucks, because a neighboring artist, Leyendecker, actually led a life worthy of an Oscar-winning film. A closet homosexual in an age when being outed as gay would ruin your life and career, whose lifelong partner was his model for the Arrow Collar Man; Leyendecker's success and fame led him to constantly push for extravagance and excess, and in trying to keep up his brother went bankrupt and killed himself if I remember correctly. And hustled out of the top-dog spot by a former protege, Rockwell!

I hate that dudes like Pollock get biopics just because they drank a lot, but Leyendecker's combination of unbelievable talent with a fascinating, complex personal life (not to mention a Brokeback Mountain tragic love story) has failed to make it to the silver screen. But I also hate that they're makin' stuff up about Rockwell, effectively to sell more books.

My Pen Name said...

I read an new biography of Washington Irving a few years ago and the same sort of hatchet job was done- same for Sargent, same I think for just about any biography these days.
It's difficult to avoid the bigger picture here - the culture war, those steeped in (false)freudian ideology sexualizing anything and everything.. we all hold paint brushes, well, you know what THAT means!

It's also important to realize that, although Norman Rockwell supported 'progressive' causes later in life (mainly because of his last wife) to people like Solomon, he represents the America of the 1950s that they are forever fighting a perpetual cultural war against, no matter how long gone it is.

The ironic thing, I think is that Rockwell, like Disney, was creating an ideal life he never had. But, he never painted idealized people. He didn't paint' pretty girls' well - he painted every day people and situations and showed us how interesting they can be.

Tom Hart said...

Garrison Keillor wrote a rather scathing review of this biography in a recent issue of the NY Times. I just skimmed it, but Keillor did an especially good job of panning the shoddy conclusions the author jumped to about Rockwell's sexuality. The examples Keillor cited were amazingly ridiculous. How any reader could give credence to those (never mind a reputable author, editor or publisher) is amazing.

Unknown said...

hehe yahh people ,people are always like that scamming getting rich from their scam. Well that's life.
It doesn't matter now Rockwell is in heaven (maybe)and he threw away the last fuck he had when he went LOL dont make a big fuzz about it man :D be happy

Unknown said...

I think Solomon is crap if Rockwell was a homosexual which i am.Why did he marry 3 times .And why did new york times publish this.Only 1 person to blame for this satan.>:C

Brad Teare said...

We live in an odd moment when public opinion is more compelling than fact. If enough people repeat those inaccuracies that will become the new reality concerning Rockwell. I'm sure the tide will turn eventually and rationality will be re-enthroned as the touchstone for reality. Until then, thanks for this update.